M.C. Escher and Art of the Carolinas


I’ve been a fan of M.C. Escher‘s work since I first discovered it in my early teens. Some magazine or other included Another World with an article, and I stared at it in wonderment for hours.  It was a couple more years before I learned the name of the artist, and longer still before I learned that I could buy a whole book of his art.  I ended up with several of these books; I didn’t mind duplicate images as long as there were also unique ones!  His imaginative worlds were amazing.  As a developing artist, I was also impressed with his precise details and perfect shading, and it inspired me to work on improving my own technique.  When I read that his visit to a place called the Alhambra in Granada, Spain inspired his exploration of patterns and tesselations, I resolved that if I ever made it to Spain, I would visit it, too.  And I did, but that’s another story….

Several months ago, I learned that a huge exhibit of Escher’s work was coming to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and nowhere else after.  It didn’t matter that it was 3,000 miles away–I was going!  I also found out about Art of the Carolinas, a big annual art materials trade show that includes over 100 workshops, hosted by Jerry’s Artarama.  What an opportunity–I could time my visit to attend both!  It got even better when I learned that Prismacolor is one of the annual vendors at AOC, and they were happy to schedule me to demo at their booth even for just one day.

So last weekend, I went!  My sister, who lives in St. Louis, flew out to meet up since she is also an Escher fan.  We spent almost 4.5 hours in the Escher exhibit and we were not disappointed!  It was huge, and included the original wood, metal and stone blocks from which he made some of his prints, old photos of him at work and at home, and even the original  man-bird statue featured in Another World and other works.  To think, I was looking directly at the very sculpture he often looked at! It was so exciting to be able to examine, as closely as I cared, the details and drawing techniques which aren’t visible in books: erased corrections, perspective guides, and faint graph paper lines were all there.  And I learned something new about his technique:  for some of his lithographs such as Castrovalva, instead of drawing the image on the stone, he first covered the stone completely with the black grease pencil and then scratched through it to produce the image, just as modern scratchboard artists do!

The same special-exhibit admission price included an exhibit of many original pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester–his handwritten study of hydraulic systems and waterways, part of an effort to reduce flooding for his sponsor city.  I thought this was an odd pairing, until I learned that Escher was inspired by da Vinci and had even read and quoted some of his writings.  These pages have passed through many hands over 500 years, and they are now on loan from Bill Gates.

Sorry I can’t show you any photos from inside either exhibit–no photography was allowed!

The next day when I arrived to demo at Art of the Carolinas, I was pleased that my Prismacolor “boss” had arranged for Jerry’s Artarama to set up a nice drawing table and stool at the booth, and Strathmore provided a tablet of their new Colored Pencil paper.  So I got right to work drawing a larger-than-life cherry.


At first glance, it’s a very simple subject, but there’s actually a fair amount of complexity in it: colors, highlights, shadows, reflections.  I spent most of the day layering four colors, then used odorless mineral spirits to blend one side of the cherry and the Prismacolor colorless blender pencil to blend the other side, leaving an unblended strip down the middle so that folks could compare the results.


I use this same image for my half-day workshops, so I knew I’d be able to work on it and carry on conversations at the same time. It turned out to be the right choice, because visitors interested in colored pencil in general and Prismacolors in particular were nearly non-stop from 9 AM to 5:30 PM.  The time flew by!  Getting to sit and draw all day while talking to folks about my favorite medium, demonstrating and offering tips for them to try, and getting paid for it to boot–what could be better?


My sister had never seen me in “art mode” before so she stayed quite awhile to listen in and observe the goings-on and take these photos.

Other highlights of the weekend were a late-night Krispy Kreme run in a stretch limo (courtesy of Jerry’s Artarama), free wine, hors doeuvres and chatter at the Art Bar, being blown away by the large inventory of the Jerry’s Artarama store, dinner with my local friend and fellow CPSA member Linda Koffenberger, and feeding the ducks and beholding the dawn redwood at Duke Gardens in Durham.  Oh, and I also met the owner of Jerry’s Artarama and asked him to consider opening a store in San Jose!  He said that 50% of their online sales comes from the west coast, so here’s hoping….



OA Gallery Small Works Invitational


I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been invited to participate in the OA Gallery 2015 Small Works Invitational in St. Louis!  The show will run Nov. 6 – Dec. 31, with a reception on Nov. 20, 6-9 PM. The gallery is easy to find, very near the historic Kirkwood train depot.

It’ll be great to have some exposure in a “new” part of the country. I’m so flattered that the gallery owners thought of me when deciding what artists to invite. I’ve been to the gallery and it’s a beautiful space. In fact, this is a bit of a “dream come true”, because when I toured it and saw the work on display, I thought “I would love to have my work in this gallery someday, even if only for awhile.”  Here we go!

Update 9/30: The three pieces which will be in the show are Malay Lacewing, The Intimate Stargazer Lily, and Colossal Companions.


Malay Lacewing, 8″x10″, colored pencil on Duralar film


The Intimate Stargazer Lily 7″x9″, colored pencil on illustration board


Colossal Companions, 7″x9″, colored pencil on BFK Rives paper


Working from Photo References: Artwork vs. Art

Given the amount of detail in my colored pencil pieces and the amount of time it takes to produce them, it’s surprising how often I’m asked “Do you work from photos or from life?”  I smile and say “If I worked from life, that flower/butterfly/leaf would’ve been dead for weeks by the time I finished” or “If I worked from life, I’d have to pitch a tent and camp for weeks at that scene to finish it.”

Some art fans look down on the idea of working from photos, they consider working from sketches and life more “pure”.  If I sense this might be the case, I volunteer that I only work from my own photo references and my finished work is never an exact copy, there are always elements I add, omit or change to emphasize what I want the viewer to focus on.  It’s important to realize that a photo is only a tool that captures a moment in time.  By using my own photos, my pieces are 100% my concept of the subject, composition, lighting, etc. as well as 100% my execution–completely original.  This explanation generally eliminates any question about the validity of my work.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people see nothing wrong with using photos taken by others–either with permission, or from a “free” website, or from magazines or other copyrighted sources.  Some people assert that the mere act of drawing/painting from someone else’s photo–regardless of copyright or permission–“makes it your own”.  A few people even assert for dramatic effect that the only way an artwork could be 100% original is if the artist also built the buildings and planted the trees that appear in it, so why bother trying to define or make “original”.

I have a hunch that the sheer number of people who work from others’ photos is what makes the art fans suspicious enough to ask about it.

The international art organizations I belong to (the Colored Pencil Society of America, the Pencil Art Society, and the United Kingdom Colored Pencil Society) all have similar philosophies on this topic, which I believe in so I will try to summarize here.

Working from someone else’s photo is fine under any of four circumstances, with conditions:

1.  For learning purposes

Classical art instruction programs often have students copy from the masters to study their techniques, and famous artists like Brueghel sometimes copied from earlier artists like Bosch when working out their own ideas.  They are, however, always identified as copies or studies.

2. For your own personal enjoyment

See my “Starsky & Hutch and Art” post.  If you love Beyoncé and simply must paint from a fabulous photo you found of her in a magazine, go for it!  Frame it, hang it on your wall at home, show your family and friends!  Just don’t try to pass it off publicly as original artwork, because it’s not.  Your painting, yes; your image, no.

3. For a commission (photo provided by the client)

If someone wants you to, say, draw a picture of their child from a photo they took on vacation, or his grandparents in an old family photo, it’s the client’s photo to do with as he pleases, and he’s explicitly giving you permission to use it to make an artwork for them.  If, however, the client wants you to draw a picture of Beyoncé he found in a magazine, that would be a copyright violation; you’re stealing the original photographer’s right to earn money from his own photograph.  When I was very young I did this because I didn’t know any better; I wouldn’t do it now,

4. When combining with other references into a composite

Suppose you want to portray a zebra but don’t live near any.  You found some photos of zebras online.  You combine the head from one with the body from another and the lighting from another.  The resulting composite shouldn’t be identifiable as any one of those references.

And that’s it.  These rules may seem restrictive, but if you’re only making artwork for yourself, as many people are, the first two circumstances may cover everything you’ll ever do, without your even needing to think about it.  Have fun!

If you start to make artwork available for purchase or to enter competitive shows, you should use your own references or #4 above.  Nowadays most such shows specify in their rules something like “artwork must be 100% concept and execution by the artist”.  They are not looking for artwork–something you painted.  They are looking for art–your vision that makes a connection with the viewer and evokes a response..  They want to see your choice of subject matter, composition, lighting, style, etc.  It’s like the difference between a cook and a chef: a cook can make great food from others’ recipes, while a chef can invent totally new recipes.

So how does one come up with these original references?  You probably have a smart phone with you all the time.  Look around you wherever you go and use your smartphone camera to capture your own moments for reference.  Or take along an art journal and sketch notes wherever you go.

To paraphrase Bernard Poulin from his speech at the 2015 CPSA awards banquet, there is plenty of artwork being made, but what we really need is art!

Update 9/7/2015: Here is an excellent flowchart by Ginger Davis Allman, www.TheBlueBottleTree.com, that makes it easy to figure out your work’s status.

The Perpetual Beginner

Many years ago, I resolved to try something completely new every year.  My list of activities tried now includes skydiving, hang gliding, bungee-jumping, motorcycle racing, swimming, traveling solo to Peru, rock climbing, being president of a CPSA chapter, and more.  Some of these were one-shot events, others turned into multi-year obsessions.  The underlying goal is to stay in touch with what it’s like to be an absolute beginner at something, with all the ignorance and clumsiness that go with it.

You might wonder why I would do such a thing, when our society encourages us to always take the safe route and stick with what we already know.  1) I love learning and trying new things, and 2) it helps me relate to folks who are new to my favorite subjects and activities, so I can do a better job of explaining or demonstrating.  Too often, experts are not the best teachers, because they don’t remember how they learned. Nobody wants to be talked down to, or be made to feel stupid.

For example, of all the new activities I’ve tried, the most frustrating was rock climbing.  The instructor would start a class by saying something like “Okay, today we’re going to learn smearing. You know what smearing is, right?”  Well of course I didn’t know what smearing was, that’s why I was there! She seemed bored as she half-heartedly demonstrated and then turned the class loose to try with only half a clue.  I learned almost nothing in that class and it certainly didn’t reduce my fear of heights.  It’s a wonder there were no injuries.

Similarly, when I was learning the breast stroke there was a man who was always at the pool who had a very efficient breast stroke, so I asked him for some pointers.  “It’s just kick and pull, kick and pull!” was all he could tell me.  I was already kicking and pulling, but certainly not the way he was, and he didn’t remember anymore how he developed his proficiency.  So I didn’t learn anything from him no matter how much I watched.  (My breast stroke is still terrible.)

This year my “something completely new” was moderating the district chapters forum at the Colored Pencil Society of American convention in Atlanta in July.  When the national board invited me to do it back in January, I accepted with trepidation because the moderator the past two years was so good; how could I possibly fill her shoes?  And I’m an introvert!  The format for the forum is wide open; the moderator can set a theme, or not; take a survey, or not; lead activities, or not, so there is no pre-set structure to fall back on.  There was no teacher to consult this time.  Where to start?  I put a lot of thought into it and decided that if the forum was geared toward helping first-time attendees understand their roles, it could be educational for all attendees.  So I set the theme “Drawing on Education”, and divided the day and a half into five broad education-related topics for discussion.  For the first time, the beginner mentality was both my state of experience and my source of inspiration!

It turned out to be a big success!  Not only did I receive unsolicited praise from attendees who have been to many of these forums, but one even wrote to the national board to say “Have to tell you the 2-day DC Forum was the BEST one I’ve attended – ever.  So much sharing, and especially the great conversations in the Joint Session too.   LOVED every minute – gained lots of “take back to chapter” info!!”  I’m still pinching myself–did I really accomplish THAT on my first time ever doing something like this?

So now, the national board wants me to lead the forum again in July 2016.  Was this year “beginner’s luck”?  Should I do it again?  Can I do it so well again?

And, what will my completely new activity be next year? Check back in a few months to find out….

Fall Workshop Scheduled

Once again, I will be teaching a half-day “Vibrant Realism with Colored Pencil” workshop at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, CA!  This one is scheduled for Sunday, October 11, 1:00 – 5:00 PM.  Registration is handled entirely through PAL, so the fee is $73 for PAL members and $85 for non-members.  Read more about it and download the supply list here; to sign up, click here.


Votes of Confidence

Dont Take the Bridge

Don’t Take the Bridge 11″ x 14″, colored pencil on UArt paper.

My Don’t Take the Bridge is safely back from the UKCPS International Exhibition in London. It didn’t win any special awards, but the show organizer was kind enough to scan the “people’s choice” ballots which voted for my piece, and sent them to me.  They mean a lot to me, because these individuals not only chose mine above all the other wonderful artwork in the show, but took the time to explain why.  They may never see my blog posting here, but in case they do, I want to say “Thank you!”.  Here they are.

Denise Howard-4Denise Howard-3Denise Howard-1Denise Howard-2